Is Venezuela Inching Toward The End Of Democracy?
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
You can now add Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro to the list of world leaders facing U.S. sanctions. That's a group that includes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un. The move comes after the vote over the weekend that U.S. officials called a sham. It handed even more power to Maduro by giving him the authority to rewrite the country's Constitution and to seat a new parliament.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
More than a hundred people have died since protests against the government intensified in April. And just last night, government forces arrested two top leaders of the Venezuelan opposition, including the former mayor of the capital, Caracas. In a moment we'll hear more from a protester we've heard from who's been part of those demonstrations. But first, NPR's chief international editor, Will Dobson, joins us. Hey there, Will.
WILLIAM DOBSON, BYLINE: Hi, thanks for having me.
CORNISH: So this is a country that at one point was quite wealthy, was doing well. And then you have Nicolas Maduro inheriting a country that did have some problems, right?
DOBSON: Yeah. I mean, the country that he inherited when Hugo Chavez passed away was a country beset by problems - crumbling infrastructure, some of the world's highest inflation, soaring crime rates, food shortages, rolling blackouts. This is the country that he was elected to govern in 2013.
CORNISH: So help us understand how in the last, say, year and a half the Maduro regime reached a point where they needed a referendum - right? - a referendum to effectively solidify their control over the country.
DOBSON: Well, you know, there are several aspects to that. On the one hand, oil prices fell during Maduro's time. And that made what was a hard job incredibly hard. It also isn't lost on anyone that Maduro is not Hugo Chavez. This is someone who does not bring his charisma. He was not an architect of the system he inherited. And so for those reasons he found himself with very poor approval ratings. And the last thing he's wanted to do in the last year is face early elections or be challenged at the ballot box. And so he made a move towards this constituent assembly that was voted on Sunday, which is really an opportunity from his standpoint to rewrite the Constitution and in a sense almost start over.
CORNISH: We've been hearing about unrest in Venezuela for so many months now. Does this feel different? Does this feel like a turning point, and how come?
DOBSON: Absolutely. I mean, the thing about Chavez's time in power was that his critics would often talk about a creeping authoritarianism. And it was true that he targeted journalists, that he cracked down on civil society, that he concentrated power. But the thing about that was there was always a democratic veneer to the system even as he centralized power. Elections were free and fair on the day that elections occurred. Now, it might not be a free and fair system the other 364 days of the year, but on election day most even opposition leaders would tell you that they either won or lost the vote based on the ballot count.
What we've just seen this past Sunday is something that is very different. I was talking to an activist earlier today who said that it had a finality to it, that there was a sense that the government is truly upping the repression and throwing out the playbook. And while Venezuela had become more oppressive over time, it was never like Cuba. And this felt something very different.
CORNISH: Well, Dobson, I want you to stay with us because we're going to hear next from a voice that's been on this program before. His name is Carlos. He is a demonstrator who lives in Caracas and has talked to us about what life there has been like under Maduro and throughout these protests.
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CARLOS: I cannot find basic food - I mean, no rice, no chicken. Fruits are very expensive. So what have really shocked me is that this past year, you can see in every street of the city there is somebody in the garbage, looking for food.
CORNISH: That was Carlos when we spoke with him last June. We're not using Carlos' last name to protect his identity. And given the vote on Sunday and the arrests of the opposition leaders, we thought it would be a good time to check back in. So when I spoke with him earlier today, I started by asking him how the protests have changed in the face of Maduro's latest move.
CARLOS: The people who blocked the streets are actually protesters that has taken a new kind of protests as a result of all the violence that was being applied to us by the police officers. People would die every day of march, so people were, like, kind of scared. So they said, we have to find a new way of protesting. And this is the blocking of the street. We call it trancazo, which means a block. So we asked everyone to get out of your house and block your street in front of your house. And this is the largest protest because there are thousands of people all around the country blocking their own street. So it's more difficult to the police to control it - like, where to go, how to get there - because it's all around the country, in every city, all the streets. So it's pretty - it's different than the march.
CORNISH: What are you using to block the streets?
CARLOS: Before you would block it with yourself. You just walk down and stand in the middle of the street. This became also risky because there were a lot of people who were run over by cars. So people start taking things to block the streets and use the tires of cars or garbage around. And then on the most radical places - I don't agree, but I'm not going to go against them - they would, like, tear down the traffic lights or bring more and more debris to block huge roads like highways.
CORNISH: Now, there have also been arrests of opposition political leaders - right? - in the last 48 hours. And now the official vote from Maduro has happened already, and you're in shock about that.
CARLOS: Yes. And actually, it was like a completely turndown of our hopes. But you know what? It was a scenario that we all expected, that he was going to win and he was going to do it - not win because he was a complete fraud. I mean, there was nobody on the streets voting and, by magic, he got 8 million votes. It's not physically possible. But we were prepared for that. And we think it's worse for them. They're more like a cornered animal that's attacking stronger every time he feels more in danger.
CORNISH: You're saying that, but Maduro - that means he has control and influence over the major branches of government, right? I mean, do you feel like you still live in a democracy?
CARLOS: No, we're not in a democracy, not at all. It's a complete dictatorship. Actually, last night at 1 a.m., they took by force Antonio Ledezma and Leopoldo Lopez. These are the two main opposition leaders. Leopoldo Lopez is a younger one, maybe the number one opposition leader. Yesterday he was taken back nobody knows where by force. And there's a video of Antonio Ledezma, which is another opposition leader. And he's in prison. So he was in house arrest. And there's a video of him taken by force into a car in his pajamas and a lady screaming around, they're taking Ledezma, they're taking Ledezma. So it's really tough image to see. Last night, I mean - and two days after Maduro said he would do the constituent assembly. So it's pretty scary, the panorama right now we're living.
CORNISH: We're using your first name only and have been because of concerns about the way police are cracking down on protesters. Do you still feel scared or worried about police or security officials coming after you or people like you?
CARLOS: Personally, I got used to that. Yes, we're still scared, but I think we left it behind. We don't - we have to keep fighting. And we're in the last - I hope so - part of this rage and violence against us.
CORNISH: So help us understand this. You're saying that in a way you're in the last days. What do you mean by that?
CARLOS: Well, this could extend from three months, six months or even a year. But we don't care because we've been fighting for 18 years against the Chavismo and Maduro regime. So what's one month or six months or year more? But people are decided. They don't want this government anymore. And you can see it on the streets. Everybody is hungry. Everybody's fighting for a better life regardless of your political party, regardless of your political views or religious views or who's your leader, who's not your leader. There's one only aim, and it's to change the government.
CORNISH: Have you considered leaving Venezuela yet? And what might push you to that?
CARLOS: Yes. To be realistic, and if you want to think logically, I should leave the country and find a job abroad and make some savings to my future life, for my future family because if I stay here - even if I stay here, the country will struggle to be reconstructed. It's going to take a while. So it's not going to be that fast. So I do - I have been thinking of what if I leave and I - two or five years to work and make a savings and then come back when things are better?
But then you think, like, if I leave, I'm leaving the fight. If I leave, am I leaving all that has been done for these past three months behind for nothing? So we have this dilemma in ourself. And I speak for me and for all the friends that I've been speaking to for all these months that live here.
CORNISH: Thank you for talking with us today.
CARLOS: Thank you very much.
CORNISH: NPR's Will Dobson is still with us in the studio. We just heard Carlos there not quite knowing what to do next, right? What about the rest of the region? I know that asylum seekers from Venezuela to the U.S., those numbers are up. How disruptive could this be?
DOBSON: It could be very disruptive. I mean, at the end of the day, many Venezuelans are in the same position that Carlos is in today where they're contemplating their futures. And many have already left the country. Those numbers have grown a great deal over the last several years. And those numbers could potentially grow much more if indeed we're seeing Venezuela take a highly repressive turn. The country will become more isolated, likely, if it becomes more repressive. If the politics are this way, it's likely that the government's tactics will also become more likely to use force. The chance for violence will only further make people like Carlos think, my future lies elsewhere.
CORNISH: In the meantime, is this a situation that could turn into a civil war? I mean, help us understand how far this could go.
DOBSON: Well, there's certainly a possibility of greater violence. If the opposition makes the decision that it has no choice but to take to the streets, that the electoral paths have been closed and that it only can sort of exert itself through protest, then the possibility of a showdown between the government and the opposition, something even larger than we've seen to date, is possible.
And of course, waiting in the background is the military. The military is very opaque. Very few people know exactly how the military will view these events, how they could potentially tilt. For the most part, Maduro has relied on his own colectivos and the national police in order to maintain order. The military has wanted to stay out of this. How long will they do so? And if they become involved, how do they intervene? Those are questions that we'll have to keep an eye on.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Will Dobson. Thanks so much.
DOBSON: Thank you.
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